The very thing that makes the Wilderness Of Rocks one of my favorite places on earth is the fact that it resembles nothing of the sort. It’s an otherworldly landscape of precariously balanced stones and curiously placed rocks that seems to imply some localized dysfunction in the mechanizations of gravity. At first glance it elicits a sense of being Mark Watney’s proving ground; an alien and inhospitable landscape at the far-flung fringes of the known universe. But it also evokes the same sense of awe and grand scale as does Stonehenge or the Moai of Easter Island. It’s a place which seems to have been designed by some colossal Craftsman according to an immense artistic vision, rather than haphazardly formed by mere forces of nature.
Kathy and I have passed through here on three separate occasions, each time as part of a thru-hike of the 800 mile long Arizona National Scenic Trail. Of those 800 miles, the Grand Canyon aside, the four miles that make up the Wilderness Of Rocks are the most memorable, and always seem to be over far too soon. Water in this area, unlike most of the AZT, is bountifully available from numerous creeks, rather than the stinking, algae-filled dirt cattle tanks that supply much of the rest of the trail’s water. This plentiful potable water along with the cooler temperatures that the area’s 8000-foott elevation brings conspire to make the Wilderness Of Rocks one of the most hospitable, as well as enchanting, stretches of the Arizona Trail.
On the southbound leg of our recent yo-yo of the AZT, as we passed through the Wilderness Of Rocks we heard a sound like someone crying out. The voice seemed to come at fairly regular intervals, it’s tone and timbre morphing into what sounded like the word, “Help!” But as we continued to listen and attempted to discern the direction of the call, the sound distorted further until it was little more than an animal bleat, like the cry of a deer fawn or mountain goat kid in distress. The bleating continue for a short time, then suddenly fell silent and we heard it no more, despite our continued listening. Our eventual conclusion was that we may very well have overheard a mountain lion kill. The Wilderness Of Rocks is, indeed, an extremely wild place.
While the local apex predators may find young ruminants appetizing, the nearby town of Summerhaven, AZ, offers more civilized fare for visitors to the area. Our favorite place is the Sawmill Run Restaurant. They have been consistently friendly and hospitable to us as thru-hikers, appearing completely unfazed by our dirty packs and disheveled appearance, keeping our beverages topped off, and even letting us plug in our phone to charge. Kathy loves the In House Made Hummus platter so much that she fantasized about it for days ahead of time as we neared town. And I’ve consistently found the sauteed portobello mushroom Vegan Wrap indulgently delicious and satisfying, and a very welcome change of pace from the dehydrated refried beans, rice, and soy strips that form the staples of out trail food.
The Wilderness Of Rocks can be easily accessed as an 8 to 10 mile out-and-back via the Marshal Gulch Trail off of Forest Service Road 10 (N Sabino Canyon Park), south of Summerhaven. A brisk three-mile hike west and then south, with only 500 feet of elevation gain, takes you into scattered pines with numerous beautiful, duffy campsites. From a comfy camp here, the Lemmon Rock Lookout trail, the Wilderness Of Rock Trail, and even the Cathedral Rock Trail all the way to Hutch’s Pool (a favorite local swimming hole and campsite) offer out-and-backs of four to ten miles round trip that can be done as day hikes or runs. However, I strongly recommend doing the entire 17 mile stretch of the AZT from the Marshal Gulch Trailhead to the Gordon Hirabayashi Trailhead off the Catalina Highway. This takes you through not only the Wilderness of Rocks, but past Hutch’s Pool (an absolutely reliable year-round water source) as well as through the Pusch Ridge Wilderness, Sabino Canyon, and Sycamore Canyon. And if your goal is ultra distance, you can turn around at Sycamore Canyon and head all the way back to the Marshall Gulch Trailhead for a fat 50k that will not only double your fun but avoid the need to shuttle cars between trailheads.
Ras and Kathy Vaughan are ultramarathoners, adventure runners, and thru-hikers who are widely recognized as the progenitors of the Only Known Time movement. They write about their adventures at www.UltraPedestrian.com
Please credit all photos to UltraPedestrian.com